- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Tuesday issued a recall of 5.2 million pounds of ground beef over fears of salmonella contamination, adding tainted meat to a list of nearly two dozen foods caught up in multistate outbreaks of food-borne illness this year.

Health officials said it’s too early to determine whether the number of outbreaks this year is higher than in previous years, but they added that new technologies and increased surveillance are identifying food-borne bacteria quickly and in greater numbers.

“It has been a busy year,” said epidemiologist Laura Gieraltowski, head of the Foodborne Outbreak Response Team at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Romaine lettuce, raw turkey, beef and even cereal are just some of the 23 foods the federal health agency has warned people away from this year — contaminated with bacteria such as salmonella, E. coli and listeria monocytogenes.

Contaminated food has likely come into contact with animal feces at some point in the production and handling process. The CDC estimates that at least 1 in 6 people come down with food poisoning each year, causing at least 128,000 hospitalizations annually.

What’s more, about 3,000 people die each year from complications of food-borne illness. The fatalities often occur among children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems.

Since 2006, the CDC has identified an increased number of cases of specific, disease-causing bacteria but has hesitated to say whether this signals a breakdown in the food supply chain. More likely, Ms. Gieraltowski said, it reflects efforts by the agency to increase surveillance and testing to identify outbreaks big and small.

“I think it’s a combination of helping states, getting them building and expanding their programs … using new technologies just to find and identify outbreaks earlier,” she said. “That has probably led to what it seems like more outbreaks being solved this year.”

The latest beef recall, for products from JBS Tolleson — a meat, poultry and pork producer in Tolleson, Arizona — was linked to 246 illnesses and 59 hospitalizations across 25 states.

Identifying an outbreak of foodborne illness requires close coordination of local and state health authorities with the CDC, a combination of on-the-ground detective work and highly sensitive laboratory testing.

Investigators ask ill people about nearly 300 foods they possibly ate before getting sick and check receipts and shopping cards that track grocery purchases. Whole genome sequencing testing is conducted on samples from ill people and suspected food to determine whether they contain specific strains of a virus.

However, identification and follow-up should be second to prevention, said Michael Taylor, a board member of the advocacy group Stop Foodborne Illness and former deputy commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.

The effort has been continuing since 2011 with the passage in Congress of the Food Safety and Modernization Act.

“That law is a big deal,” said Mr. Taylor, who oversaw implementation before he left the administration in 2016. “It was a major overhaul of the food safety system to make it more preventive.”

The law granted the FDA more regulatory authority to establish food safety measures in agriculture and fresh produce, manufacturing and processing, transportation of foods and imports. The USDA has regulation over meat, poultry and eggs.

Mr. Taylor said the wide-ranging legislation is a “substantial long-term process” of full implementation, but recent outbreaks — such as the E. coli outbreak in November from romaine lettuce — highlight areas that still require attention.

The November outbreak sickened 43 people across 12 states with 16 hospitalizations. An outbreak in April, also with romaine lettuce but contaminated by a different strain of E. coli, resulted in five deaths, more than 200 illnesses and nearly 100 hospitalizations.

“The two romaine outbreaks that have happened this year are big deals because a lot of people are getting sick …,” Mr. Taylor said. “I think they’re shining light on the fact that there’s still more to be done to figure out how you prevent these illnesses.”

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